Before You Pick Up Instant Pick-Me-Ups

If you’ve ever yawned your way through a mid-afternoon slump, you know what you’d give for a sudden burst of pep.

Now, a growing number of products--with names like Natural Drive and Energy Pak--are promising just that kind of instant energy.

Mixtures of vitamins, minerals and herbs, these palm-sized packets of pills may be found next to the cash registers at your local convenience store. Some brands are available only through distributors.

And their costs vary. A daily supply of Sunbrite’s Energy Pak, a vitamin-mineral mix, costs 59 cents. A daily dose of Natural Drive, a liquid sold through distributors, costs about $1.


Ingredients differ, but the Sunbrite Energy Pak is fairly representative. Labeled a “hi potency vitamin-mineral pack,” it has vitamins A through E--plus lecithin, alfalfa and ginseng.

“People can expect a higher level of energy if this is taken on a regular basis,” said Shelly Kaplan, Sunbrite’s president. Other promoters of energy formulas don’t make such concrete claims, but point to customer feedback as proof of their products’ effectiveness.

“Most people take a half-ounce of Natural Drive in the morning and another half-ounce at 1 or 2 p.m. and say it carries them through the day,” said Charley Perkins, executive vice president of Deanna Kay Inc., the Carlsbad firm that introduced Natural Drive about a year ago. Perkins said some customers report they need less sleep while taking the formula, a mixture of 29 minerals, herbs and vitamins.

But the government regulators, herbal experts and some dietitians aren’t as enthusiastic about instant energy formulas.

“It’s difficult to find the energy sources in these products,” said Emil Corwin, spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration. And the value of some of their ingredients has raised questions, as well. “The FDA considers use of ginseng for making tea OK,” Corwin said. “But it may not be used for any other food purpose.”

Fatigued consumers thinking of investing in instant energy should save their money, advised Varro E. Tyler, a Purdue University herbal expert and author.

“The only really natural substance you can buy without prescription to stimulate the central nervous system (and increase energy) is caffeine,” said Tyler. Even if the herbs in the so-called energy formulas do work, Tyler added, there’s often not enough of them.

“It’s a gimmick nowadays to add just traces of herbs, but add a lot of different ones (to the energy formulas),” said Tyler. “You can only speculate (in that case) that these herbs are there in sub-therapeutic amounts.”

While the energy formulas probably aren’t dangerous, Tyler said consumers should be wary of certain ingredients. Dandelion root and cascara, for example, act as laxatives. “Habitual use might be unwise,” Tyler said.

What’s a weary consumer to do? “There is nothing beyond proper diet and exercise that can help a normal person increase their energy,” Tyler said.

Instead of relying on instant energy formulas, Bonnie Modugno , a Marina del Rey dietitian, advises her clients to examine underlying problems.

“Ask yourself why you’re tired. Are you eating properly? Getting enough rest? Address underlying lifestyle questions,” said Modugno. “These (energy formula) products can only do so much. The underlying cause of the fatigue is what demands attention.”

POINT / COUNTERPOINT Nonsurgical Treatment for Kneecap Problems

Anew, nonsurgical treatment plan for kneecap problems, called the McConnell tape-and-exercise program, is sparking interest among health care providers and patients. Imported from Australia, the treatment was devised by a physical therapist and involves wrapping the patient’s knee with special tape and prescribing a series of exercises. The treatment works, proponents say, for most alignment problems in which the kneecap does not track or glide normally. But others caution that it’s no cure-all and say the treatment must be carefully tailored to individual patients. Some still need to undergo a “lateral release” procedure, in which a surgeon works through an arthroscope to release tissues that pull the kneecap out of alignment. Here are two experts’ views on the tape-and-exercise program:

Dr. Martin Blazina, Sherman Oaks orthopedic surgeon:

“The principle of this treatment isn’t new. The whole idea is to realign the kneecap into proper position. If the patient is deemed acceptable for the treatment, the tape is placed to pull the knee from the outside to the inside and back into position. Then patients are taught to use and strengthen the muscles on the inside of the thigh. They use a biofeedback machine to help learn how to use those muscles effectively. In four to six weeks they can abandon the tape. But they continue the exercises. Then we ‘graduate’ them to other forms of exercise that are more interesting, such as stair-climbing machines. About 75% of patients can avoid surgery.”

Dr. Todd Molnar, Van Nuys physical medicine, rehabilitation specialist:

“I’m in favor of the McConnell technique but we need to be very specific about whom we tape. We can’t assume, for example, that every (misaligned) kneecap slips laterally outwards. Some slip inward. I sometimes advise an MRI patellar-femoral motion scan (a special visualization of the kneecap and thigh). If someone is taped and not doing well, we may be taping wrong. And sometimes knee problems involve leg alignment problems. But most kneecap problems should not be treated surgically.”

SHOP TALK New Age Cigarette?

Call it a New Age cigarette, designed for tobacco purists and smokers who want to cut back their consumption. American Spirit cigarettes are promoted as “free of chemical additives” by their Santa Fe manufacturer, which distributes the product only by mail order and through New Age and smoke shops. The cigarette comes in three varieties: a ceremonial “Pow Wow” blend of herbals, botanicals and tobacco, and tobacco-only cigarettes, either filtered or unfiltered. The company stops short of saying the lack of chemical additives reduces disease risk, but a spokesman does claim that “most people find they smoke less if it is pure tobacco.”

Here’s what a smoking cessation expert has to say about the New Age cigarette: “It sounds better, but you are still smoking,” said Nina Schneider, a UCLA associate research psychologist and chief of the Nicotine Dependence Unit at the Brentwood Veterans Administration Hospital. “So far, there still is no such thing as a safe cigarette. As long as you are inhaling burned tobacco, you are getting nicotine . . . along with tar and gases.”